KEARNEY — Will the good habits stick?
That’s the question on the mind of Jeremy Eschliman as the city of Kearney’s mask mandate is set to end Tuesday.
It has been three months since the Kearney City Council voted 5-0 to require the wearing of face coverings in public.
“Back in November we knew at that time that having a statewide mask policy was not attainable, primarily because the governor said it was something he wouldn’t allow,” said Eschliman, executive director of Two Rivers Public Health Department.
He said Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes a statewide mandate despite science that universal mask wearing is effective in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
On Nov. 17, when Kearney enacted its mask ordinance, hospitals were filling rapidly with COVID patients. Nurses, doctors and health care leaders were desperate for help in curbing the spread of the virus. The council responded with a mask mandate.
On Nov. 17, there were 101 COVID-19 cases in the Two Rivers District. That number included 56 new cases in Buffalo County. There were five deaths and a total of 48 patients at CHI Health Good Samaritan and Kearney Regional Center.
Today, three months after the Kearney ordinance took effect, there were six COVID cases recorded during the weekend in Buffalo County.
Eschliman said Kearney’s numbers improved because the mandate, with a few exceptions, required total compliance. When everyone wears a mask and practices other personal prevention strategies — social distancing, frequent hand washing and wiping surfaces with sanitizer — it greatly increases the effectiveness of masks.
“Part of having the mandate was to encourage that culture. The question is how much of that will carry on after the mandate,” Eschliman said. “We’re really excited the numbers are going down and thankful the community has listened and done the right thing.”
Eschliman said the mandate helped businesses that may have been interested in having their own mask requirements, but they were afraid about customer blowback.
“The mandate really took the pressure off businesses. We still would encourage them to keep masks available and to encourage patrons to wear masks. The risks still continue. We still could see a significant outbreak again,” he said.
In particular, Eschliman is anxious about coronavirus variants. They are appearing around the globe and some appear to be more aggressive and contagious.
That’s why Eschliman is hoping the good habits learned during Kearney’s mandate will remain in practice, especially until a large majority of Americans have been vaccinated. Herd immunity is achieved when 75% to 80% of the population is vaccinated. Herd immunity could be just a few months away if the pace of vaccinations continues to quicken.
Other than approving minutes of last week’s public hearing on the ordinance, there is no formal action on Tuesday’s council agenda regarding the mask ordinance. Mayor Stan Clouse said last week no action is necessary for city mandates to sunset on the preordained date.
“If it (mask ordinance) does sunset,” Eschliman said, “we hope citizens continue to do the right thing: wear masks, social distance, and, when the time comes, they get a vaccine.”